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Before writing a formal review, I thought I'd share a few personal thoughts about my experience reading this book. These insights, read in conjunction with the review, will hopefully give readers a more visceral idea of the book's worth and potential impact.

First and foremost, I must admit that the thought of reading a YA novel based on the events of 9/11 scared me. Like the author, I witnessed firsthand the attack on the Twin Towers. I heard the planes hit, I watched the towers fall in close proximity, and I spent the next four years (like all New Yorkers) adjusting to the toxic smells, the sleepless nights and the omnipresent fear, while learning to heal psychologically. To this day, I still find it difficult to relive anything that happened on that particular day, let alone read about it.

Therefore, when reading the first few chapters of REFUGEES, I constantly had to get up and walk around, make myself a cup of tea, or distract myself in some way. When I finally forced myself to come to terms with the subject matter, I found that I was hyper-critical of what I was reading. I picked on the author's sense of timing, thinking that she rushed what actually happened on 9/11 in order to advance her plot. I criticized the characters in how they dealt with the tragedy, feeling that they were "too superficial" or "too melodramatic," depending on the situation.

It was only when I understood that this knee-jerk critical response was my attempt to come to terms with my own experiences on 9/11 and that this impulse was fueled by what I was reading, that I realized that the author had therein accomplished her goal. REFUGEES made me think, question, feel, and most importantly, helped me remember. It is for this reason that I offer you both a review and a brief interview with the author, Catherine Stine. I hope you'll enjoy it.

To write your first novel for young adults about something so volatile a subject as the events that transpired on September 11, 2001, and to actually do it successfully, is one thing. But to compose a story that also examines the complexities of familial relations, the difficult yet enlightening process of maturing, and the impact of nationalism, religion, and cultural traditions on personal interactions --- now that's something else entirely. With delicate fingers and a sensitive heart, Catherine Stine has created REFUGEES, a tragically bittersweet yet ultimately uplifting story about a burgeoning friendship between two teenagers --- he in Afghanistan and, later, Pakistan, and she in New York --- in the wake of September 11th.

Sixteen-year-old Dawn Sweet certainly has had a difficult life. With no father to speak of and a mother who abandoned her at a young age, Dawn spent most of her early years either living at Epiphany House (an orphanage) or trying (and failing) to adjust to various foster homes in San Francisco. Her latest set of foster parents, Louise and Victor Garland, are neither warm nor emotionally responsive and spend most of their time ignoring Dawn rather than making her feel like part of the family. So, on September 6, 2001, when Victor has gone to work and Louise has left for the International Committee of the Red Cross's Suryast camp in Peshawar, Pakistan to serve as a much-needed doctor there, Dawn impulsively decides to change her surroundings for good. Along with her friend Jude and two of his friends, she leaves San Francisco in order to begin a new life in New York City.

Meanwhile, in Baghlan, Afghanistan, fifteen-year-old Johar and what's left of his family are facing an entirely different set of divisive circumstances. With both his father and mother dead, Johar and his older brother Daq must rely on their aunt Maryam for sustenance. But when Maryam's hut is destroyed by Taliban soldiers and Daq is forcefully recruited to join Taliban ranks, Johar must risk his life and flee to the safety of Peshawar, Pakistan before he, too, is taken and made to fight against his will. It is here in the Suryast camp that Johar is introduced to Dr. Louise Garland and, eventually via telephone and email, to Dawn.

In the pages that follow, the separate yet intertwined sagas and psychological journeys of both Dawn and Johar alternatively unfold as the two friends navigate their post-9/11 realities and irrevocably changed selves. Can Dawn make peace with her emotionally barren past in order to create room for a possible relationship with Louise? Can Johar forgive his brother for betraying his family and fighting on the side of the Taliban? What happens when two young people from clashing cultures with polar social and religious values attempt to maintain a bond that is inherently fraught with the potential for misunderstanding and judgment at the onset? Is this type of union even possible, and if so, what can be learned from it?

A clearly well-researched novel with political relevance, timeless appeal, and a silently explosive emotional component that will have readers thinking about the story --- and its lessons --- long after they've finished digesting it, Catherine Stine's REFUGEES is a must, must, MUST read for teens and adults alike.

(A glossary of Afghan-Persian words and phrases, and Manhattan and Afghanistan "Updates," are included at the end of the book --- acting as possible springboards for around-the-table discussions both in schools and libraries, in book groups, and at home.)


Reviewed by Alexis Burling on October 18, 2011

by Catherine Stine

  • Publication Date: February 8, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 0385731795
  • ISBN-13: 9780385731799